Is it ever right for animals to suffer?
Whenever the matter of animal suffering comes up, a colleague of mine invariably responds, "This is an emotional subject."
In one sense, of course, he's right. The way we treat animals arouses strong emotions. People feel passionately, for instance, about how we make animals suffer for food, science and sport. But that wasn't what my colleague meant. He was suggesting that the entire subject was a matter of emotion rather than reason -- that there can be no rational grounds for concerning ourselves with the current treatment of animals. I think the boot is on the other foot. Despite 30 years' thinking and writing about animal ethics, only recently have I grasped that the rational case for protecting animals is stronger than even I had supposed.
Consider the oft-cited differences between humans and animals, the very differences that many claim make human suffering more important than that of animals. By nature or divine providence, animals are naturally subject to humans. They are nonrational. They have no language. Animals are not moral agents, and they have no immortal soul.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that all these differences are true. Given that we know that mammals (at least) are all capable of suffering, the question is: Do any of these differences make animal suffering less deserving of our moral solicitude?
It is difficult to see how. That God or nature has made animals subject to our power cannot justify unjust treatment unless one believes that God is unjust, or that power is its own justification. The absence of a language or moral agency cannot justify indifference to animal suffering unless we take the same view of infants. Similarly, would not the absence of an immortal soul mean that we should express more care, not less, to those whose misfortunes will not be recompensed by heavenly bliss?
The only morally relevant difference might be rationality, insofar as it enables one to anticipate further suffering. Perhaps some animals are spared an anticipation of particular harms, or of death itself. But even then, it is not clear that the suffering of nonrational beings is less morally significant.
Consider the suffering of a nonhuman primate -- a chimpanzee or a gorilla -- in captivity. Unlike humans, who can understand the reasons for their captivity, this creature cannot rationalize his predicament. Rather, he experiences the terror of imprisonment without any softening of the experience that comes from intellectual comprehension. And, since an animal's very life depends upon the acuity of its senses, the denial of liberty to a free-ranging creature constitutes a severe deprivation.
Seen in a different light, then, these differences make concern for animal suffering rationally compelling: Animals can't represent or vocalize their case, cannot give or withhold consent, cannot comprehend, are morally innocent or blameless and, not least of all, are largely vulnerable and defenseless.
What compels our strong response to the suffering of children, specifically infants? The reasons are surely that they are innocent, unable to represent themselves and utterly in our power. This rational case for children should logically include animals as well.
In short, human suffering should not stand as a unique source of moral concern.
Response by Adrian Morrison
Animal suffering certainly matters to us, and of course it is worthy of "rational" discussion. That is why we respond to it with laws against cruelty and devise standards for their care when animals are used for biomedical research and modern agriculture. That we do so is one of the defining features separating us from animals, one more important than our possession of language. No other being can be held accountable for its actions in a court of law. No animal, even the very intelligent chimpanzee, will concern itself for my welfare should I become a helpless old man; yet we are enjoined to provide for those animals in our charge.
I originally trained as a veterinarian with the goal of becoming a general practitioner and curing animals of various ailments. While in veterinary school, though, I developed a great interest in the nervous system, a shift in my studies that would require me to harm and even kill animals -- under strict guidelines -- in the interests of medical and veterinary science.